Finally, lighthouse slid into the sea Erosion: In 1926, the landmark that had kept ships from running aground at Cape Henlopen, Del., for 162 years lost its footing and succumbed to wind and waves.

Way Back When

August 08, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For 162 years until it fell into the sea in 1926, the landmark Cape Henlopen, Del., lighthouse had warned mariners away from the treacherous shoals that surround the entrance to Delaware Bay.

For many years, it was not only the tallest structure in Sussex County, Del., but guarded the entrance to one of the nation's busiest commercial estuaries.

When constructed by the British in 1764, the tower was a mile from shore facing the Hen and Chickens shoals, named for a large shoal surrounded by smaller ones.

During the Revolutionary War, the lighthouse became the setting for a stand-off when Keeper Hedgcock defied a British admiral's request to buy meat for his frigates that rode at anchor off the Delaware Capes.

"I'll give you no cows, but if you don't get out of here, I'll give you some bullets," he said.

"He sassed the gold-laced Britisher with the free-and-easy spirit of a Yank today," said The Sun in 1925.

Hedgcock retreated behind the safety of the lighthouse's seven-foot-thick walls, lit his pipe, said his prayers and waited for the promised bombardment by the British fleet. It never came.

"The light has saved hundreds of vessels with its mighty rays, and has seen many a good ship go to pieces on perilous sands. George Washington rested beneath its shadow.

"During the World War, it was witness to the wrecking of the oil tanker William Pratt by a U-boat. Now it virtually is dominated by a relentless sea and shifting sands," reported The Sun.

The light, which was only extinguished during the British bombardment of Lewes during the War of 1812, thrust its 13,000-candlepower light 17 miles seaward continually until 1924. That year, a new light went into operation guiding ships up and down the Delaware, and the old landmark went finally dark.

As far back as the 1780s, reports reached Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia raising concerns that the lighthouse that was 84 feet wide and rose 164 feet "above the tides and built of ashlar granite or gneiss," was in danger of being washed away.

Experts claimed that the change in currents caused by the building of the Delaware breakwater caused erosion of the ocean shore. Heavy nor'easters also brought the ocean closer to the doomed structure and the lighthouse keeper's house, which also was undermined by erosion.

Proposals to save the structure included building a jetty offshore with sunken captured World War I German battleships loaded with stone.

"It will only take one or two more big nor'easters and the historic beacon will be no more," predicted The Sun.

"The weather forecast for April 13, 1926, was for fair weather with diminishing northeast winds and a high temperature of 62 degrees. And it turned out to be just right," author John W. Beach writes in "The Cape Henlopen Lighthouse."

Roland Webster, a Western Union telegraph operator, was standing on the canal bridge having just finished his lunch and killing time before returning to his key. He stood looking at the old lighthouse, some distance away.

"Meanwhile, over on the beach the high spring tide was being pushed along by a strong northeast breeze, and wave after wave crashed on the beach, then slithered in to nibble at the sand hill supporting the lighthouse tower.

"Finally, at 12: 45 p.m., that last bit of sand that meant the difference between support and non-support slipped down the hill toward the sea ... and after a tottering moment was followed by tons of brick and stone. There was nothing where it had stood but a fine mist kicked up as the rubble hit the wave below," wrote Beach.

Webster, who had been looking at the lighthouse, blinked, and realized it was gone. He walked to Morris' Drug Store on Front Street, and told Everett Bryan, who worked there, that the lighthouse and keeper's house had just toppled into the sea. Bryan looked at his watch and announced that it was nearly 1 p.m.

"The lighthouse which had weathered many a gale over 150 years was felled by a northeast breeze, and as if in defiance, fell eastward into the sea which had beckoned so long," Beach concluded in his book, published in 1970.

"Thus passes a landmark that was known to thousands of landsmen and which for more than a century and a half was of the utmost importance to every ship that entered the Delaware River. ... When Henlopen light was built it was the only light between New York and the Capes. It served faithfully and long and now that it has passed, it should be remembered," said an editorial in the Evening Sun.

The high sandhill and site where the old lighthouse once stood is today part of Cape Henlopen State Park and is open to visitors.

The sandhill is the second highest on the East Coast, its nearest neighbor being found at Provincetown on Cape Cod.

Pub Date: 8/08/98

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